It was the year the bra was invented, Vivien Leigh was born and Charlie Chaplin signed his first film deal. Britain still had her vast empire, London had the largest port in the world and the Liberal Government’s sweeping reforms promised to wipe out extreme poverty with the creation of a welfare state.
In 1913, George V had been on the throne for just three years and the summer seemed to last forever. Women wore modest bathing suits to paddle at the beach from Scarborough, North Yorkshire, to Cornwall and public displays of affection were scandalous. Londoners revelled in the simple pleasures of admiring the Pearly Kings and Queens. It was seen as the age of Edwardian innocence, conjuring up images of sleepy village life and croquet on the lawn. Even style was to be transformed. Flowing sleek lines would replace the rigid look of Edwardian times thanks to the first fashion designer, Paul Poiret.
Many see the pre-war era as an idyllic time. But, 100 years on, historians say Britain was already heading towards massive social upheaval. Historian and author Prof Martin Pugh said:
“The march of modernisation was already under way when war broke out. In many ways the conflict simply accelerated the changes. In 1913, there was already great political controversy between the Government and the House of Lords over Irish Home Rule, the suffragettes were at the peak of campaigning and Emily Davison died when she threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in Epsom, Surrey. There was great worker unrest and 1,400 strikes took place that year. The feminist movement, which had already been building through Edwardian times, also took a back seat for a while but re-emerged with the issue of equal pay and voting rights. After the conflict, the war was blamed for all the political, economic and social problems of the day but the truth is many of the issues were already brewing pre-1914.”
Far from being the sleepy rural nation shown in popular TV programmes such as Downton Abbey, in 1913 Britain was a forward-thinking modern country. Her ports were rich and mining brought wealth to the country. It was also a nation of explorers and adventurers, who strived to set new records on land, at sea and in the air. In Europe the roots of modern culture were forming – often causing controversy. In Germany, soldiers and sailors were banned from dancing the Tango. In Paris, the first performance of Stravinsky’s avant garde ballet The Rite of Spring caused a riot. America was experiencing dramatic change, too. Henry Ford began a revolution in personal transport by launching the first car production line. Louis Armstrong, whose jazz style would help transform music, picked up a trumpet for the first time. The household fridge, the crossword and – back here in Britain – stainless steel were all invented. Britons’ private lives were starting to change, too.
Prof Pugh said: “After the war middle class ladies no longer had chaperones and working class women were much better paid in the workplace. The idea that pre-war years were totally idyllic came from the belief that moral standards had broken down post-war. For instance, women were now independent and going out to dance halls and cinemas by themselves. Contraceptives were also more available.There was an idea that society had somehow broken down. The truth is many of those changes were on their way to taking place even without the Great War.”